Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Bummer (1995)

Promotional photo by Anthony Gray
Dobama’s Night Kitchen premiered on Saturday, September 23, 1995 at 11:00 PM with the original, ninety-minute, ensemble-written play Bummer. The work was written and performed by Tia Dionne Hodge, Dan Kilbane, Trishalana Kopaitich,  Keith Lukianowicz, Sarah Morton, and Charles Ogg, and I directed.

The previous spring, I was contacted by Dobama Theatre Artistic Director Joyce Casey to create a series of projects to be performed “late night” following their mainstage productions in an attempt to attract all the young people who were hanging out on Coventry.

For the three years I was managing the project, DNK featured new plays, long-form improv, and a variety of ensemble-written projects. The most cohesive of these, in my opinion, was 2001’s The Gulf, which has a tightly focused point-of-view on a particular event. This earlier piece cast a much broader net.

The mid-1990s represented a kind of return-to-childhood for many members of Generation X, an opportunity to review and revisit times long forgotten. This was the era of films like Dazed and Confused, which took place in 1976, and also Reality Bites which included a signature moment of twenty-somethings having an impromptu dance party in a gas station food market when My Sharona comes on the radio.

Big Fun, which opened in 1990 just up the street from the former Dobama space, was part of a burgeoning trend of upscale retro memory stores. Weezer’s entire first album is a salute to the year 1979 … and Smashing Pumpkins released a song called 1979. As a tribute to my entire tribe, I decided the first show would be a salute to recovered memories, with a title appropriated from a cartoon in Dynamite magazine called Bummers.
“1980?” [Hansen] asks. “Why not? It was a really strange year, not part of the ‘80s, not part of the ‘70s. It was a big transition period.” – The Plain Dealer
The only Bummer company member from Guerrilla Theater Co. was Keith “Lefty” Lukanowicz, Charles lived in my mod at O.U. The other four members I met for the first time through auditions, and each of them (Dan, Sarah, Tia and Trish) would become de facto DNK company members, participating one or more additional productions, Dan himself later taking on the responsibility of artistic director for the project. Auditions included, if you can believe it, request for a writing sample.

There were actually seven company members originally, because I am by nature superstitious, but one backed out right as we began rehearsals. However, I am also superstitious enough to let things progress the way they will, and did not replace her.

With this first project I was depending on methods of writing and performance I was accustomed to from my work in Guerrilla Theater Company, which had disbanded the previous year. Artists would write, we’d put the writing on its feet, then either keep what we’d written or go back to the drawing board. I had no experience in editing or rewriting, and with the six week rehearsal schedule I’d set I didn’t feel we had that kind of time. Just write, try it, then keep or discard.

Company in costume in front of Dobama
There was so much good material I balked at selecting only one hours’ worth of stuff, opting instead to cycle some material in and out over the course of three weeks, which may not have been the best decision, either. But as is, the material was amusing, ridiculous, poignant and touching.

Costumes were largely cobbled together from the thrift store, though we did get a new Rock and Roll Over ringer tee for Keith and a Daffy Dan’s Cleveland Rocks shirt for Charles.
Hansen says Hodge will wear a pair of Chic jeans, but she corrects him. “No! I have Sassoons, with one pocket and a snap!” Morton interjects that she wear the Chic jeans – aqua-colored – in the show. (The Plain Dealer)
Performed on the set of Dobama’s mainstage performance of George Walker’s Love and Anger (set in an industrial basement office) the show truly had the feel that the kids had taken over and were putting on their own show. And admission for this first production was three dollars.

Critical response was extremely generous for this fledgling project, an experiment in writing, performance and my nascent abilities in direction.
While a few of the early skits fall short of their intended effects, others shine with near brilliant writing, moving performances, smart timing and fresh creativity. (The Plain Dealer)
The best-written and most moving pieces are presented with a genuine appreciation and respect for young children and their inner-strength. (The Free Times)
 The show is warm, human and fresh. (Cleveland Scene)
The two scenes which stood out most for audiences and critics alike were Tia’s monologue on growing up the only African-American student in her elementary school class in suburban Aurora, and Sarah’s Interview about an eleven year-old trying to escape the foster child system. In this piece she sits alone on stage while two unseen parents kindly question her:
Visually shaken and frustrated, the child demands to know what she should say to finally be rescued – like other children – from this system. Aged by life’s ugliness, she says, “It’s not my fault I know more than they do.” (The Plain Dealer)
The show included a great deal of pop culture references, with a few notes of period pop songs covering each brief scene change, skits about Little League, kids playing at Charlie’s Angels and getting the lyrics wrong.

Most theater companies with any staying power generate their share of artists whose work outshines the humble origins. Recently I have been struck by how many Dobama's Night Kitchen artists have had great success as writers, even if their work in the Night Kitchen was not strictly writing. Notable examples include authors Tia Dionne Hodge (Play.Speak.), Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You), and playwrights Laura Jacqmin (Hero Dad), Sarah Morton (Night Bloomers), Caroline V. McGraw (Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys), and Toni K. Thayer (Angst:84).

‘Bummer’ tells how it was being a kid in 1980 Cleveland by Sheila Simmons, The Plain Dealer, 9/23/1995
Swing Poets give smart take on 1980 by Sheila Simmons, The Plain Dealer, 9/29/1995
Bummer Isn't One by Lenora Inez Brown, The Free Times, 10/4/1995
Happy talk about actors and acting by Keith Joseph, Cleveland Scene, 10/5/1995

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Crucible: Archive Materials

Diane Bell as Mary Warren, Kirk Willis as John Proctor
Cleveland Play House archives (CWRU)
In honor of the Cleveland Play House 100th Season, the Playwrights Unit has been asked to write short plays about the company’s history. As CPH’s 2015 production of The Crucible will be in performance when these sketches will be presented, I offered to cover the regional premiere of that play, which was produced at the Play House in 1954.

We were given access to company archives, which are kept at Case Western Reserve University, and their staff and the apprentices at CPH have been extremely helpful in locating and distributing specific items.

I have previously covered The Crucible in this blog, having read contemporary reviews of the CPH ’54 production, as well as Miller’s own inspiration for having written it. But there was much I had never seen, including photographic images of the actors, their costumes, and the scenic design.

Produced at the Euclid-77th Street Space, it was presented on a wide, open thrust stage, with little wing space. The set is a spare frame construction. The period costumes, inspired by the garb of 17th century Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay colony, do much of the work in placing this production in time and space.

The reviews for the CPH production were uniformly positive; when they were critical, it was generally in comparing this new play to Miller’s landmark Death of a Salesman.  A preview piece written by William F. McDermott for the Plain Dealer provided background which informed potential audiences this new work (it opened on Broadway in 1953) had elicited a wide range of opinion.

The Crucible at the Euclid-77th Street Theatre
Cleveland Play House archives (CWRU)
True, The Crucible had won the Tony Award for Best New Play. However, the producers did not decide to create a touring production. McDermott reported that the West German paper Der Tag found the work, “too narrow minded in clinging to historical fact,” and that in Miller’s characters he had created, “no one person which stirs our conscience.”

When the Munich-based paper Abend suggested this play is a “reliable image of what happens in the United States,” it even produced a defensive response from the playwright who countered, “In Salem they only hung [sic] sixteen persons, in Europe they had burned thousands.”

One of the great delights of looking into an archive like this are the pieces of personal correspondence which someone, at some time, decided it would be worth to save. There were some internal memos, and also personal messages of special interest or gratitude.

A thank you card from a Mrs. S. who lived on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights saw The Crucible with her husband in 1954 and offered a pair of observations which, taken together, will be familiar to anyone who has managed any theater company, anywhere:

“Neither of us can remember a more wonderful production.”
-- and also –
“I was annoyed to see so many empty seats.”

The Plain Dealer, October 3, 1954
Cleveland Play House Archives, Case Western Reserve University

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Secret Adversary: First Reading

This paperback has been in my satchel for six months.
Historically, I have found it necessary or even desirable to be working on more than one piece at a time. This summer, however, one project in particular has created a distressing logjam, not only for my ability to write but also to think and conduct myself as an emotionally adult human.

During the past two weeks I held a rehearsal read of the work in question, a one-hour adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary, and then presented it to the unit this past Wednesday. Just completing the draft suddenly made it possible for me to think about an entirely other work, one which I began a year and a half ago, and discover what needed to happen next with that script.

In addition, there was another piece, a project we are working on within the unit, a five minute scene, which I was able to create in short order (the turnaround itself was fortuitously brief) and about which I will write in some detail in the days or weeks to come.

The reading at the CPH offices was happily well-attended. It helped that every single GLT actor-teacher was present – all eight of them, most reading and the rest to provide support and enjoy the read. But there were also CPH staff, most of the unit, and several of our kids.

Feedback was reassuring, that I have successfully adapted the novel into a script which flies along and is mostly coherent. RL for example is a great fan of Christie’s characters Tommy and Tuppence and expressed how much she looked forward to the reading (prior) and how much the characters satisfied (after).

In fact there was helpful balance of positive response and critical comment and suggestion to keep me moving forward. The small company (3 men, 2 women) put some in mind of 39 Steps, suggesting the piece is going to be even more humorous in performance then I had previously imagined.

CH stated the transition from what is Christie’s dialogue to what is mine is pretty seamless, and in fact most of the lines which popped for folks were actually mine (or in one glaring case, Evelyn Waugh’s.)

One issue of great interest is the McGuffin, the “draft treaty” which puts the entire adventure into motion. Where it passed hands - on the deck of the sinking Lusitania – requires some explanation to our modern, American audience. Even more important, however, is how such a document could topple a government. I mean, it really doesn’t matter, that’s not why the adventure is exciting. But it does give the entire endeavor some kind of point. Christie didn’t need to explain this, but I do.

Something else I need to do is create a calendar of events. The book takes place over the course of about a month. The way I have abridged it, it’s more like one week, but I’d like specifics.

It’s been a long summer. I remember writing pages in Montréal and in Maine, day after day in Cleveland. I thought I’d never produce a draft, but kept moving, one page after another.

I’m running a marathon in two weeks. Running a marathon is easy. Writing is hard.